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Delayed Gratification


Explanations > Motivation > Delayed Gratification

Description | Discussion | So what?



Some people want good things today whilst others are prepared to wait until tomorrow or later.

A big question for anyone is the extent to which they are prepared to wait for big rewards later or will settle for less in the short term. Along with this is the question of the level of discomfort people will put up with in order to gain a later reward.

Some people have a greater tendency to use delayed gratification as a personal motivation whilst others are more motivated by 'instant gratification' or pleasure now. Those who make greater use of delayed gratification are likely to be more successful in their lives.


An effect that influences delayed gratification is discounting (or delay discounting). A financial 'discounted cash flow' (DCF) is a calculation of the present value of future money. We do the same with personal pleasures, converting future benefit into a present value which we use to help make investment decisions around our time and effort. We are in this way less motivated by the promise of reward in a year's time as compared with one week's time or right now.

One thing that mitigates this is anticipated pleasure that contributes to present happiness as we think about the positive future. This is perhaps a uniquely human ability where delayed gratification may actually be more pleasurable if you think of sum of all the good feelings leading up to the event, plus the pleasurable event itself. There is, however, a limit to this. If you put a pleasant event twenty years out, you are unlikely to spend much of the intervening time looking forward to it.

In the 1960s, Walter Mischel did an experiment with children where he offered the choice of one early marshmallow or, if they could wait a while, two marshmallows. He went back to them ten years later and found that those who waited for the two marshmallows had been far more successful in their lives, with better coping skills and being more persistent in working towards their goals (Shoda et al, 1990).

Thinking about the future is important also for young people who may be more focused on immediate pleasures with little thought for the future. Romer et al. (2010) found that risk-taking as assessed by use of three popular drugs (tobacco, marijuana, and alcohol) is inversely related to the ability to delay gratification.

So what?

If you are going offer somebody a reward now or in the future, first find out more about how they respond to delayed gratification, then focus on the future or present appropriately.

See also

Pleasure-pain principle


Romer, D., Duckworth, A.L., Sznitman, S. and Park, S. (2010). Can Adolescents Learn Self-control? Delay of Gratification in the Development of Control over Risk Taking. Prevention Science, 11, 3, 319-330

Shoda, Y., Mischel, W. and Peake, P. K. (1990). Predicting adolescent cognitive and social competence from preschool delay of gratification: Identifying diagnostic conditions. Developmental Psychology, 26, 978-986.


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